The Trans-Siberian Railway: Pot-bellied leather singers and the deepest lake in the world
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
Ben is a British writer now based in Brooklyn, New York. He has travelled extensively in Asia and South America.
There’s a kick, a jolt and then a lull. The train winds into motion. This is the Trans-Siberian railway.
I am traveling with my friend Jeff, a born-and-bred train aficionado from Herndon, Virginia. Now, I do not use the word “aficionado” lightly. We’re not talking Thomas the Tank Engines for his birthdays or electric trains roundabout the Christmas tree. Give Jeff a train on the Eastern Seaboard and he’ll be bound to offer a schedule, stations and a breakdown of likely delays. He’s been known to end a dinner conversation with a list of possible reasons why a fellow diner’s train might have been held up 6 months before in Patagonia.
So the Trans-Siberian, well, this was the big league. No Amtrak holdups along the Potomac or Metro-North carriages filled to the gills at rush hour. This is the longest uninterrupted train track in the world, a stretch of steel that has long been the bloodline for Russia. As a kid, I even remember looking up at a world map in Ms Brothers’ Grade 4 classroom and seeing the vast expanse of nothingness that ballooned Russia out to the east. The only clear mark was the line that stretched from one side to the other, jagging through cities north of Kazakhstan before carrying on to the far reaches of the Pacific.
Train journeys rattling into the night for days on end seemed like a far off world to a young mind that grew up a stone’s throw from London. It existed in Agatha Christie novels and my Dad’s Christmas DVD collection specials (Dr Zhivago was quite a favourite). Even when we pulled out for the very first time, the fantasy hadn’t quite worn off. There was the prospect of a two-week journey ahead, cutting through Siberia, along the shore of Lake Baikal to Irkutsk. The train heads through the gateway cities of Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk and into the Ural stronghold of Yekaterinburg. From there it is a straight shot to Moscow (where I would depart for Uzbekistan and Jeff, in unsurprising fashion, would continue on the train to Berlin. He was going to work for a train consulting company. Go figure).
We decided to start our journey in Harbin because I wanted to see Manchuria, the north-eastern region of China I had not been able to see on a previous trip to the country. After a tour of Dandong, a trade hub on the North Korean border, and the industrial cities of Shenyang and Changchun, we met in Harbin. Harbin’s best known for its exquisite Ice Festival from December to January. Whole buildings of ice are built each season and coloured in every shade of light. Unfortunately, it was May. There was no ice. But it was still cold. It’s always cold, but I learned to shut up about that pretty quickly.
Harbin, even without the Ice Festival, has some pretty interesting quirks to its history. It is one of very few cities home to an Orthodox Church, a Synagogue, A Buddhist Temple, a Confucian Temple and a Mosque. Jewish merchants made their way to the northern region of China in the late 19th century and, within 100 years, moved on. There’s little left of the old Synagogue now (a new one charging 25 Kuai an entry doesn’t seem quite in line with its religious roots, although there is an interesting museum about Jewish history in the region on the second floor).
There was a brief spell in the 1920s when Mennonites breezed in from Siberia and, just as quickly, breezed out (many of them heading half way across the world to live amid a war zone in Paraguay. Talk about extremes). As for the Russian influence, the hulking Saint Sophia church is the most prominent reminder, with its huge green dome rising out of the city centre. In other areas, Harbin is a run-of-the-mill, bustling Chinese city. The main commercial drag, Zhong Yang Street, is lined with the likes of North Face and Starbucks. Russian-Chinese discos compromise the requisite karaoke scene.
Karaoke, or "KTV" as it is known in China, is not quite my cup of tea. I have already done one-too-many renditions of the Back Street Boys’ version of “Uptown Girl” on a previous trip to China, but Jeff and I decided to explore the other night options that Harbin had to offer. A couple of streets over from Zhong Yang Street is the Blue’s International Club. It is a block south of the Saint Sophia. It would seem that religious deference knows no home here.
With a Tsingtao beer in hand, Jeff and I joined a meagre crowd of date-nights and bachelor parties. The first act was a singer backed by a trio of Russian women. Picture “indifference” in your mind, apply it to a face and you’ll be half way there as to how these Russian women looked. It was a bizarre show in which the lead singer beat out each note with electric fashion and these three Russian 20-somethings murmured to the floor. If there had been a clock down there it would not have surprised me. Still, it was the second act that had us wide-eyed, coughing up the contents of our beer.
A potbelly man, clad head-to-toe in leather, came on stage. There was sweat dribbling from both ears and a row of cracked beers stage left. It seemed he would need some fuel for the evening. He roused cheers from the crowd like a stage-opener for a grand act and then, with little warning, he took a bottle of beer and clasped it between his knees. In one swift movement he craned his neck downwards, wrapped his mouth around the neck of the bottle and brought it high into the air, glugging the contents. The crowd cheered.
The man wrapped another bottle between his legs and repeated. And then repeated again. He went up and down at least six times. It’s hard to say exactly when but, at some point in the interim, the trousers and shirt came off, leaving only a cut of leather between the audience and the man’s dignity. At the time, it certainly seemed like an unexpected way to kick off a trip across Asia but I suppose unexpected, in and of itself, is a theme that recurred throughout the weeks to come. So the next day, on the train, with the kick and the jolt below my feet and the image of a scantily clad, pot-bellied beer-drinking man singed into my mind, Jeff and I headed to the border.
In our jaunt to the border, the train was a curious enterprise of Russian provodnistsas and Chinese train personnel. It was a mismatch of Chinese and Russian carriages, Russian signs in one car juxtaposed with the Chinese fitting in the next. In spite of the joint enterprise, the excursion doesn’t come across as a loving mark of bilateral relations but rather a contrived undertaking that is the product of two distinct nations. So much so that the Russia-China border crossing from Manzhouli to Zabaikalsk would take place at 3:30am (I am convinced countries do actually collude over this to make it as inconvenient as possible for weary foreign travellers) and the transfer between train lines would take 10 hours. As my residential train expert put it, the gauge of the rail in Russia is 5 feet as opposed to the standard rail gauge in China of 4 feet, 8 and a half inches. As a result, the “bogies,” the apparatus under the carriage, have to be changed. It is of no interest to a regular traveller, save for the extreme headache that comes with whiling away 10 hours in the rubble-stricken outpost of Zabaikalsk. It’s a town that belongs in Soviet tall-tales. Derelict, unoccupied stores and men in trench coats line the streets. It’s a not-so elaborate train depot masquerading as a town, with people few and far between. It’s a far cry from the soaring skyscrapers in the Chinese border town of Manzhouli.
The compartments on the trans-Siberian have a 2x2 bunk bed set up. The first compartment we took to the border was renovated (a luxury we didn’t come to appreciate until after we transferred trains) with a table close to the window and a door that lead to a long hallway down the carriage. There was one tiny bathroom (with a toilet and a sink. Bathing became a challenge in acrobatics).
We would have to change trains in Irkutsk but, for this journey, we had only one compartment companion, a Russian DJ in his 20s called Roman. He spoke little English except, of course, for a rather dexterous grasp of English profanity. “Russian border patrol, what the fuck?” and “I have children, piece of shits” were particular highlights (whether, in context, the latter statement referenced to the border guards or his children is hard to say).
The journey through the northern reaches of China quickly departs the Harbin high-rises. Huge expanses of grassland stretch across a flat landscape that, far in the distance, lip out of view. Every so often, ghost cities of concrete apartment blocks, populated by pick-up trucks and trains, weave in and out of view. As night-time drew close, there was little indication that the landscape would change.
Jeff and I headed to the dining car. Our last meal in Harbin had involved an eclectic mix of vegetables and meat dumplings (well-received) along with a vegetable that Jeff and I could only liken in appearance to sliced and shrivelled alien brain, along with a generous portion of yellow and green eggs (not so well received, unless succeeded quickly by a hurried gulp of beer). The menu on the train was far more bland – a noodle broth or vegetables with rice – and I think Jeff and I had no problem with that.
We came across four international travellers over dinner. Simon, a South Korean film student who was traveling to Britain via Scandinavia in order to see a friend; Anita, an Australian self-defence instructor who was halfway complete with a large loop of the continent; Sam, an American from Massachusetts who had taken a year out to travel, and Aldwin, a French engineer who had lived in Shanghai and was making his way back home to France.
There were many reasons why people were on the train. Roman had travelled to China in order to buy some cheap electrical goods for his family in Irkutsk. A Chinese man staying in another compartment said he was pursuing a work opportunity in Krasnoyarsk. For the international folk we dined with, they too had their reasons that brought them the long way around, but what was clear was that nobody was in a rush. The pursuit was not in the destination but in the journey itself. Whether people were doing the straight-shoot five-day trip or a stop-start through-line of the Russian countryside, the endpoint was a reminder of what we were looking to avoid, not the destination in which we were hoping to get to.
We bedded down for the night, knowing our 3:30 stop was only a few hours away. Before turning over I peaked below to the bottom bunk. The moonlight was just enough to animate Jeff’s face. He was looking out the window. His chin was reared high, gazing up towards the stars. The smile was as broad as the landscape. We had 5,000 miles to go and we weren’t going to waste a minute of it.
Two hours into Russia we came across our first Siberian village. Dour-faced middle-aged women and dressed down Russian soldiers boarded the train for their travel west. The intermittent stops continued, few and far between, and allowed for a great excuse to look out the window with a book in hand and flash a glance every now and then of the vast expanses of land that would seem misplaced in any other scenario. The land here is not so much a destination, even for the hardened farmers and far-flung train operators that fleet through it. It is an in-between spot, an untouched landscape that has little meaning except for its connection between places. In the winter it is thawed and unwelcoming; in the summer it is unfertile and unkempt. Yet, passing through, the view and the few signs of life offer up a rare image where nature and activity seem on equal footing.
Irkutsk is quite a different prospect. It is very much at odds with the disembowelled cross-streets of Zabaikalsk. It is the cornerstone of activity and history in the otherwise expansive region of eastern Siberia. Irkutsk grew up as a trading post in the 17th century, facilitated by the Siberian road that connected China to Moscow, 3,200 miles away. 18th century cathedrals and 19th century administrative buildings are the shining lights of curiosity in a city that otherwise remains a little tempered by its harsh environment. Although, I admit, our rather unillustrious arrival may have coloured my outlook by a shade or two.
In typical Russian fashion, the Irkutsk train station is a brightly coloured throwback to another era, with steepled towers on either side of the entrance and arched windows lining the front. The greetings from would-be taxi drivers, on the other hand, were far from magnanimous. It seems that the free hours on the train studying the guidebook had been for nought. We had no idea how to get to the bed & breakfast we had organized.
Roman, our profanity-ridden companion, exited the station a few moments after us. He tapped me on the shoulder, pulled at the straps of my backpack and said. “Irkutsk. Criminal. What the fuck?” He pulled at the straps again. Great. Thanks Roman. I get the picture. I pointed on the map where we needed to go. He waved us over to a white van at the corner of the train station with a group of young men inside and ushered us in. Now, there are a few rules that I have for travel purposes. 1. Always hang on to your passport (I learned that the hard way. No doubt there is a rather chuffed Ben Hatt chortling around China with a money-belt’s trove of invalidated traveller’s cheques, but that story is for another time). 2. Always carry toilet paper (again, a story for another time). But getting in the back of a suspicious, tinted white van with a group of strangers? I dare say that is not a travel rule, that’s a general life rule. It was one that, in the moment, I inexplicably decided to abandon. We hopped in and darted through a cross-section of the city, connected only by snapshots of concrete buildings and shop fronts as we let people on and off.
Finally Roman ushered us out with a final (and undoubtedly profanity-laden) goodbye. We arrived at out pink-frilled B & B. I dare say that much wiser souls (including the readership of this article) would have found a far more stress-free way of getting there. We dropped off our bags and headed back into the city centre. We had plans to take a bus east to Lake Baikal the next day so the afternoon and evening were the best we had to see what Irkutsk had to offer.
I really wanted to enjoy Irkutsk. It was the first city in Russia that I had visited and the long procession from the border had whiled up visions of Russian history and culture that had played in my mind since I first booked the trip. In spite of the cathedrals and the main drag of historical buildings, the wider architecture, the flesh and substance of the city, was largely uninspiring. The city-proper stood apart from its majestic centre, loosened by a network of diesel-guzzling roads and dejected eateries. The city was an afterthought of its former self, bourgeois 19th century ballet theatres long having given way to a 21st century nightlife that did little to fill the void.
The next day we bundled down to the lake on a teeth-clattering journey in the back of a van. (It was a scheduled mini-bus that left from the station. And there were paying passengers. Breaking a life rule once in a week is more than enough).
Lake Baikal is the deepest freshwater lake in the world. It is as awe-inspiring as one would expect. On the train into Irkutsk, we had curved around the southern shore but now, standing on the shore, Russia was no longer a screen of vistas passing in front of a window. We could reach out and touch it.
We stayed at a B & B in the small shore-side town of Listvyanka. The lake lay about 30 feet in front of us. It was a cool wash of blue with a ridge of mountains visible on the far side of the lake. Lake Baikal is over 12,000 square miles. You could fit Maryland inside it. It reaches 300 miles north (a drop in the bucket as far as Siberia is concerned. It's another 2,000 miles north until you reach the Laptev Sea in the Arctic Ocean). Its widest point east to west, however, is less than 50 miles. When we arrived at sunset we could not have asked for a more glorious opening. It is simply vast and untapped: a larger brother to Lake Superior (less than half the size but with twice the volume, I believe my argument holds water. And yes, that’s my pun quota for the article, I promise).
We grabbed dinner in town (a Russian stew, a meal that was fast becoming the staple diet) and bedded down near the coast for an early night. I had read about the Great Baikal trail prior to my trip: an endeavour that started in 2003. The task was to build a hiking trail around the entire lake. The project has not got very far (as far as I could deduce there are a only a couple of sections no longer than 20 miles) but, for me, it was a must-do for the trip. Jeff had his trains (more than enough for that matter) so I was due my hike.
A quick jaunt north of town and we found ourselves among the pines. The path climbs north of town past a farm and a picnic area. It continues along a slope that drops to the water and then straggles across rock. Time and time again, I had to pry my eyes away from the hand-and-foot scramble in front of me to look out at the mountains across lake. The water was as clear as any, a shallow front that stretched out a short way before turning dark blue. That is where the water dropped deep into the earth.
From shifting slopes to meadows and pebble-ridden beaches, the 15-mile trip there and back offered a side of Russia that I had not considered much prior to coming here. Russia had existed in my mind as a grey place, weighed by harsh winters and iron fists. It was a place where smiles were grim and eyes were dulled. Too much time in the US may explain much of that perspective, but I will accept my own part of the blame. Here, however, there was nothing grim and nothing dull. It was the sort of day where the sun hangs high in the sky and you feel like you can walk a thousand miles. I can only hope in the future that more people consider Russia as a place to come. A day like this, well, it can change a few perceptions.
There was a kick and a jolt under our feet once again. The next morning, after our hike along Lake Baikal, we high-tailed back to Irkutsk for an afternoon train. The city had a final challenge to throw our way. With a tram system that was as foreign to time and schedule as we were to the language, we had a frantic dash for the station. The Siberian gods were on our side. We made it with less than 10 minutes to spare.
The next leg of the journey was our major test. We had a 50+ hour lumber to Yekaterinburg, the next city on our agenda. We were trekking from the depths of Siberia to the heart of the Ural Mountains, north of Kazakhstan. Huge alpine groves gave way to mild mountains that shuffle from village to village. That night on the train, we met two businessmen who were travelling from Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk for work. There was Constantine, a 38 year-old originally from Norilsk who spoke like a 1980s B-movie action star (which made sense, that’s how he had learned his English) and there was Anton, a 30-year old former English teacher from Krasnoyarsk. Their company specialised in installing insulations in large commercial and residential buildings.
“We fight off the winter,” said Constantine, “stop it in its path.” That’s quite the task, I thought.
Anton, thrilled to brush up on his English, pored over every topic from cinema to politics to culture. The two men offered an insight that I had thoroughly been lacking. I had been too focused on wrestling with my own ever-changing perspective on Russia without sharing in the curiosities and gripes of those who actually live there.
Anton lamented how the US had become the scapegoat for Russia’s shortcomings. At the same time, it upset him that Russia was suffering the same fate from European and North American media outlets. The two countries had become a cliché to one another, undone by negative mudslinging and, for him and Constantine, the culture of it was damning.
“Have you seen Jack Reacher?” Constantine said, “Bam Bam. Tom Cruise. It is crazy. We are always the bad guy.”
“The way they portray us is always so silly,” Anton followed up.
“And the accents…” Constantine scoffed.
“The accents are terrible.”
“You are the hillbillies; we are the villains,” Constantine said. He shook his head and slapped the window.
Anton and Constantine departed the next morning at 7am when the train pulled in to Krasnoyarsk. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and rolled into Western Siberia. We had crossed over 1,500 miles of Russian territory by this point and, with the exception of Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, the country had shown little sign of a population. Untended hills and birch forests rolled in and out of the landscape. Every so often a house or two crept up on the side of the train and give rise to a modest station. Just as quickly the houses whittled away and brought back a familiar landscape.
Onward to Novosibirsk we shared our compartment with two other men. There was a geology professor who fathered Jeff and I through our foibles, instructing us to make our beds and eat a nutritious dinner. The other was a former soldier on his way north to help engineer roads in the far reaches of Siberia. They both departed in Novosibirsk and we spent the rest of the day trundling toward Yekaterinburg. It would be our penultimate stop before Moscow. We were finally out of the grasps of Siberia, into softer territory.
Yekaterinburg is much more what I expected from a Russian city – huge, modern boulevards intercut with relics from the Russian Empire. In the business district, glass-faced skyscrapers line the curve of the Iset River while the old city is interspersed with Tsar-era architecture. For a long time, Yekaterinburg was a “closed city” to foreigners due to military bases and government activities. The city only opened up in 1991 and, with it, there was a huge growth in the commercial industry and international tourism.
The city, however, is indelibly linked with the gruesome murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. On July 17th 1917 the Imperial Romanov family, having been imprisoned by the Communist opposition at a house near where the Church of All Saints now resides, was bludgeoned and bayoneted to the death. They were unceremoniously buried and Russia graduated into the beginnings of the Soviet Union. The house where they were imprisoned no longer exists but the Church nearby is a magnificent recognition of the sacrifice in Russian history. The official name of the church is the “Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land.” Quite a mouthful, but a powerful memorial to the fact that turbulence has run rife on all sides of the political spectrum.
A dodgy lunch at a buffet nearby cut short Jeff’s tour of the church. These things can happen quickly and there was a rather desperate sprint to the church stalls. Not quite the holy deference we were looking for in such a place but when you need to go....
We crossed back over the Iset River, where there is a hulking, larger-than-life statue of Lenin residing over the city. It’s hard not to read it as a political tit-for-tat, with Lenin’s arm raised towards the murder scene of the Romanov family.
We rounded back to our hotel in the outskirts of the city and prepared for an early train onward to Moscow. Yekaterinburg had been a friendly place, with warmer temperatures and warmer receptions than Irkutsk. It was where Asia began to give way to its European influences. Not that it was the lack of European tendencies that hardened the welcome in Irkutsk, but there was a familiarity in Yekaterinburg, perhaps the chest-puffing egoism that all major cities are capable of, that encouraged those from the city to share in their experience of it.
Nevertheless, if Yekaterinburg had given in to that big city spirit, then Moscow would be a wholly different enterprise. Capitals are always curious places. They are little islands in their own state. It’s where one often goes to judge a country but often can barely grapple with the city itself.
The train kicked and jolted for the last time. We pulled out of Yekaterinburg and cut through the foothills of the Central Russian Upland. Villages here passed in and out of view at a much quicker rate, climbing up hill slopes and running along riverfronts. We passed through Kazan, then Nizhny Novgorod before trundling into the Moscow train station.
Moscow was an undeniable shock the system. With out-of-reach luxury stores, fine dining and a symphony of landmarks and cultural institutions, the rubble, dust-streets of Zabaikalsk were, in more ways than one, half a world away.
We had a day-and-a-half in the city before Jeff continued west to Berlin and I took a flight south to Uzbekistan. Our first state of affairs was to tick off the necessary boxes. We dropped our bags at a hotel in the north of the city and took the metro to Red Square. It was overrun with a sports fair the day we were there - Andrei Arshavin wannabes playing five-a-side on AstroTurf rollouts. It brought a communal spirit to the city that had been lacking in the grand scheme of things. I grew up in and out of London and major cities always run the risk of head-down, tunnel-vision attitudes. Moscow has that but, as moments like this show, there are pockets of shared activity that seem to cut away at the idea of isolation in a crowd.
Next stop was a tour inside the Kremlin. I imagine like most Brits, the idea of entering the Kremlin has a Pavlovian-like kick to it. On news channels and political talk shows the Kremlin is styled as a real-life Minas Morgul, an earth version of the orc stronghold in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring. With its high walls and imposing exterior, it is easy to get the sense that you are crossing enemy lines in plain sight. Of course, the reality is quite different. Sections, of course, are cornered off but there is quite the freedom to explore.
The entrance we took led us passed the Grand Kremlin Palace and round the back to the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. Despite being the very heart of Russian governance, the Kremlin is surprisingly spacious. A main walkway curves around the administrative buildings right around to the southern entrance. There is a slope of trees running down to the south-eastern section. There’s enough history and curiosity here to satisfy a whole day. For us, we had seen a vast swath of a country that all boiled down to governance from this singular place. From Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk, north, south, east and west, it was an unmanageable vision that was captured in the political nexus on which we stood.
The next day Jeff departed on a tour of the city outskirts in search of a customized model-train locomotive from the trans-Siberian. For all of Russia’s reliance on its trains, it would seem that model versions of engines from its network are a rare commodity. From his research Jeff had identified just two possible stores to satisfy his fancies, seemingly at diametrically opposite ends of the city, and so his half-day was very much taken up. For me, I took one last day around the city with no specific intent. There are an array of museums, ballets, theatres and more but I figured I wanted my last few hours to be in the thick of things, to pass through the high street drags and side alleys that connected a modern city with all sections of character and consider how one thing had led to another.
I could retrace my steps, foot-by-foot, back to Zhong Yang Street and the Blue’s International club without ever putting a foot in the air. Everything was interconnected, a succession of scenes, moments and meetings that brought one place to the next. Russia is a country that stretches on and on and on, but I had drawn a line across the map from one end to the other and at least begun to grasp the breadth of character and experience that reached across the country. It’s a journey that I can play over and over in my head and always find a new flourish of memory that has not quite found the time to settle.
Rolling through the Ural Mountains on our journey from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg, Jeff said something that summed it up best. I think I’ll leave with that. (And, for those of you wondering, Jeff did find his model train. It cost a small fortune but, in the context of what we had just done, what else was he going to spend money on?)
“Nothing’s more epic than this. You don’t have to be a train enthusiast to appreciate this. You just have to love adventure and love grandeur and love everything that is beautiful and massive and really, just epic. I mean if you appreciate life, this is a journey for you.”
If you enjoyed the article, you can view a short film I made about Jeff and I on the trip at the link below. Thank you for reading!